I have always felt a strong commitment to contribute to the community.
I will never forget my first profound experience with service when I was in high school. I, along with a selected group of students, went to Jonestown, Mississippi – one of the poorest towns in the country – to paint the walls and ceilings of the community center over spring break. At the end of the seven days, I felt unfulfilled, like we (a group of Northeasterners) had not done anything for those we were supposed to help, but rather, did it for the sake of “doing good”. Those of Jonestown did not seem receptive to our help, nor willing to participate in the project. Similar to the history I had studied in the classroom, it seemed as though we were colonists coming in and imposing our beliefs on the natives.
When I got home, I called one of the families I met and asked if I could return over summer vacation so I could get a true sense of the town. I stayed with them in their trailer and was completely immersed in their daily "normal" – bloodstains on the floor, guns and bullets next to the bed, kicked-in walls, sweltering heat, cockroaches, chitterlings and all – genuinely shocked by such a different way of life. When I settled in, I realized that Jonestown was indeed being “governed” by outsiders and there was no stability from within. The community itself had no real sense of community; it was just outsiders coming in each week to “help” bring about change that nobody really asked for, wanted or were capable of initiating themselves. That was the moment I truly learned the value in the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Through my interactions and conversations over the following weeks, the locals were able to see that I genuinely cared about why I was there – not just to paint walls and ceilings, but to bring the Community Center to life, for them, the community. There, in Jonestown, Mississippi, I realized that service is not about what we think others need, but instead, about truly understanding and learning to help identify needs, and giving those you are there to help, a safe and comforting environment, where they feel they can reach out and ask for assistance. Service is about providing the opportunities and resources to continue to bring the dreams of others to life.
That trip transformed my perception of community service. Service ultimately strips us down and allows us to connect – human to human – and relate on the most basic level with people who are different, instead of wanting to change them. Community service should not be viewed as a program requirement, or a nice thing to do, but instead as a part of the fabric of one’s character – a way of life.